Why I want to burn everything down right now—and why I’m not going to

What I learned from James Baldwin’s writing about race, in a moment of great anger.

James Edwards
17 December 2014
 Demotix/Bryan Sutter.

Police arrest a protester at the Million Mask March in Ferguson. Credit: Demotix/Bryan Sutter.

One week after a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson came word Wednesday that a grand jury in New York would not be indicting NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. That’s despite the fact that Garner’s death was: 1. Ruled a homicide; 2. Due to a chokehold maneuver that has been banned by the NYPD; 3. Captured on video.

Garner’s haunting last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for the many demonstrating in New York and elsewhere—just as “Hands Up” did in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

I can feel that same discomfort in my throat that I know he must have felt.

But since last week’s decision in St. Louis County, another set of words have stayed planted in my mind. Four of them, to be exact. They were uttered by Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, shortly after last week’s grand jury decision.

While consoling Brown’s mother—and amid the shouts of those in the crowd around them demanding justice—Head screamed, “Burn this bitch down!” And he screamed it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

Every time I watch a video of this moment, I can feel that same discomfort in my throat that I know he must have felt—when you've got more words left inside than your voice has the strength to say.

Many were quick to condemn Head, arguing that his outburst further incited the violence that happened that night. Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder went a step further and said in a radio interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that Head should be arrested and charged with inciting a riot. Police are, in fact, looking into charges against Head. And Head himself has since come out and apologized, saying that he “screamed out words that I shouldn’t have screamed in the heat of the moment.”

But with each police killing that passes and the lack of justice that follows, Head’s initial words might be more justified than we’re willing to admit.

The words “conversation” and “problem” trivialize the reality.

Just starting from Rodney King and the L.A. riots in 1992, it’s become a tradition every couple years for the United States to be confronted with its complicated history with race; whether it be via the O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of Amadou Diallo, the Jena 6, or the countless unarmed African American men and women who have been killed by police and others for fitting the description.

Each time, in some form, many will say, “America needs to have a conversation about race” or “America has a race problem.” But the words “conversation” and “problem” trivialize the reality—as if a series of town halls or forums will do the trick.

America doesn’t have a race problem. America is the problem. It is a country whose true greatness remains shackled by its even greater flaws. But we have a tough time acknowledging those flaws are still with us—or that millions have benefited directly and indirectly from its legacy. Maybe it’s denial. Maybe it’s ignorance. Or maybe it’s just fear.

“This is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it.”

But I’ve reached the Fannie Lou Hamer point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired—of trying to figure out why. I’m ready to burn this bitch down:

I’m ready to burn down the schools that have set so many of our children up to fail for so many years, turning them into guinea pigs for the next great education experiment.

I’m ready to burn down the jails and prisons that incarcerate us in disproportionate numbers, break up families, and have become revolving doors and dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

I’m ready to burn down the courts that have sentenced us for so many years for minor offenses and in years past failed to deliver justice for parents like Mamie Till Mobley.

I’m ready to burn down the police departments that profile us, harass us, and sometimes even torture us.

I’m ready to burn down the Capitol and state houses that are supposed to represent us, but more and more often represent only the highest bidder.

I’m ready to burn down every institution that has profited on our backs because the market is “free.”

And I’m ready to burn down every redlined, foreclosed, gentrified neighborhood still reeling from the fallout of our War on Drugs; neighborhoods that kill us with higher rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.

But as I’m prepared to light that cocktail, I think of James Baldwin. Specifically, this passage from Baldwin’s essay, “A Letter to My Nephew”:

But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it.

In one of the essay’s final lines, Baldwin writes, “We cannot be free until they are free.”

It’s a statement as true today as it was when it was first published more than 50 years ago. But, sadly, freedom is still passing us by—all of us.

This article was originally published by Yes! Magazine.

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